James Appleby - The NABS Podcast
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Pressing Fast Forward on your mental wellness with James Appleby

Hosted by Louise Scodie

Louise Scodie – NABS 00:01

Welcome to the NABS Podcast. NABS is the support organisation for those working in advertising, marketing and media. I’m your host, Louise Scodie. Each week I’ll be chatting with someone from our industry to find out how they support themselves and those around them through challenging times, as well as the day to day – and it’s all to help you support your own mental wellness.


This week, our guest is James Appleby. James Appleby is managing partner at Assembly Global and also chair of NABS’ flagship pitching training programme, Fast Forward. James has worked in media agencies for 22 years, running large, complex, and sometimes high-pressure clients across luxury retail and government, which includes a lot of pitching work. James has a passion for personal development and team growth, including mindfulness, yoga, coaching and team building techniques. Learning has been a key theme throughout James’ career, which is why being involved with NABS’ Fast Forward is his favourite thing to do.


Well, welcome, James. It’s really great to have you on the NABS Podcast. How are you?


James Appleby

Great to be here. Yeah, I’m fabulous. Thank you.


Louise Scodie

I’m glad to hear that you have recently started your new role. How is it going with the craziness of a new job and adapting to a new routine?


James Appleby 01:24

Yeah, it’s good. Thanks. I think in some ways, it’s the same as anyone starting any new job. And I’ve done that a few times in my career. But, and we might come on to this, but having a little bit of time out to consider what I did next, which I did this year, having been having been made redundant, it’s, it was interesting, having had the time to reflect on what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. And I’ve come into it with a really much better energy than I would say, I’ve started some other jobs in the past. So yeah, all in all, I’m in a very good place. Thanks.


Louise Scodie – NABS 01:59

I’m happy to hear it. Well, we’ll delve a bit more into that in a minute. Let’s reflect -what does mental wellness look like to you?


James Appleby 02:10

A great question. So I was, yeah, I, I would, I would say the short answer is a good night’s sleep. I think it’s just the best indicator for me of whether I’m happy, whether I’m mentally fit. And I quite often like to think about things. Maybe this is my kind of media planner brain. From an opposite point of view, ie, what I know what it looks like when I’m mentally not feeling great. And it looks like me waking up in the middle of the night, and me being quite cross and grumpy with my kids and my family and my wife. And it’s me not concentrating on what I’m doing when I’m trying to enjoy myself. And I’m thinking about a project or work or a difficult person that I’m having a difficult conversation with. So, the flip side of that is when I’m sleeping well, when I’m laughing and smiling and joking with people, and that doesn’t feel like an effort. When I’m actually enjoying, you know, a family weekend, like it’s my son’s birthday on Friday. And we had a great family weekend for him turning eight. And it all felt really good and fun. And then I thought, oh, it’s work tomorrow, you know, Sunday night, as opposed to I hadn’t spent the whole weekend thinking, Oh, God is work tomorrow? You know, which sometimes when I’m not in a great place I have \ been, I have caught myself thinking.


Louise Scodie – NABS 03:35

Do you find this a bit chicken and egg with sleep factor?


James Appleby 03:40

I must admit, cards on the table, I’m very lucky. I’m a very good sleeper. I am so lucky. And I know. And I know from talking to a lot of people that that’s not the same for everyone. But I’m generally speaking of sleeping, which is why I think I use it as an indicator because I mean, I could fall asleep in a thunderstorm and kind of you know, on a concrete floor and all that stuff. If I’m waking up in the middle of the night worrying about something, then it’s really bad.


So again, I’m fortunate, it’s not happened to me too much in my life. But it has happened a couple of very notable times, and looking back, those were times when I was mentally not in a brilliant place with work. So yeah, so it’s a bit chicken and egg, I think because of course once you start to lose sleep, and I have, I was here sort of few months ago when I was didn’t have a job and not quite sure what to do next and was worrying about everything every day, worrying about money worrying about family, worrying about you know, whatever would I ever see the inside of a media agency ever again, all that stuff. And I had like one bad night’s sleep and I couldn’t. I thought I said I’ve lost the ability to sleep. A


nd so of course you just get more tired and more grumpy and it goes round around in circles a little bit. But as I say I’m sort of quite fortunate in that sleep wise is a sort of natural position to be in. But I did have to pull on lots of mental wellbeing tricks that I have in my cupboard. And I sort of brought them all out to try and get myself back.


Louise Scodie – NABS 05:13

Well, let’s talk about the contents of that cupboard. How did you, because that is, that is a stressful time, you very openly shared that you were made redundant. And it’s happened to so many of us, and especially at the moment, and it just shows that wherever you are in your career, unfortunately, you’re not immune. So you have the trauma of being made redundant. And then the period where you’re not working, and you’re interviewing, and you’re worried about money coming in. So what are you taking out the cup of to help you during that genuinely stressful time?


James Appleby 05:41

Yeah, so I think the from the pandemic, remember that I learnt and I’m sure I learned similar things to a lot of people. But obviously, we all go on our own journey and learn stuff about ourselves, but the physical fitness bit has, has been an absolute kind of mainstay. So the good thing about not having an office to be in every day was that I could basically do run or, you know, gym or cycle everything pretty much every single day, Monday to Friday anyway. And that that was like, I considered that like a baseline, because it that physical health really did help my mental health, it helped me just be calmer and sleep better and be sort of more naturally tired. So the physical fitness thing was, I think, a big thing, talking to people as much as as much as possible.


So what I learned during my time of redundancy was that people are incredibly generous and kind. And they certainly were, in my case, with their time. And actually, just to go back a step. One thing I found is that it was a very lonely place to be because of course, as soon as you’re the only person, we’re not the only person but you’re one, all of sudden you’re the odd one out and you don’t have a place to be and loads of stuff to get done. You realise that people really want to help you. But they’ve all got jobs and their families, and they’re all really, really busy. And everyone says, Oh, we must go out on Monday, let’s let’s have a chat, I’ll, you know, connect with this person they do. But my timescale is like, well, let’s do that in the next hour, because and your timescale is two weeks is pretty good. You know, so that was quite frustrating, frustrating place to be. But also, it was a slightly lonely place to be because I was physically at home, you know, when I wasn’t exercising, or going somewhere trying not to spend money.


You know, I was kind of at home thinking, I’m not chatting, and I realised about myself that I’m, you know, I need that social contact. I mean, you know, we’ve all a lot of us have, have done some sort of introvert extrovert test, Myers Briggs, or whatever. And I’m probably a bit more at the extrovert scale. And I now definitely know that I am because I know that if I don’t get that social contact every day, I start to feel a bit frustrated and start to climb the walls a little bit. So just making myself but I also didn’t want to be a bother to people. So like just making myself talk to people. Again, I realised in my day to day job, and then my new job at Assembly. I’ve realised I get it all the time. And it’s wonderful as people who’ve got problems to solve, and we’ve all got the same problems to solve. So I can just go and chat to people. And we sit down and we say, right, what do we need to get to the next hour. And I come away feeling energised, because that’s where I get my energy from, I realise not everyone is the same. But I think knowing that about yourself is a really helpful thing. Because then you can go okay, cool, well, that means I’m going to not going to come home and say, oh, I’m exhausted from talking to people today, I realise actually, that’s where my energy comes from. Because I was much more exhausted not talking to people, if that makes sense.


So I guess the physical side of things, and from an access point of view, the social side. I must also say that something that happened during the pandemic was that I kind of inadvertently started the pandemic, not drinking, and I ended up doing that for over a year. I also just I think it helped. And then I did that, again, the start of this year, and I again, started it when I wasn’t working, I thought I would just be good to have a bit of healthcare. And it was great to keep that going. And I found it just really gives me a clear ahead. I mean, we all like to have good news about our bad habits, right? But unfortunately, I know the news for me is there is really no, no good news other than, you know, one day I’m sure I’d like to have another glass of wine again. But that’s really helped as well. Because sticking to that knowing that it’s helping the sleep helping the exercise, just all of that’s keeping me keeping me a little bit more on the straight and narrow has been I guess, probably the big three.


Louise Scodie – NABS 09:56

It’s about identifying what’s going to make you feel good. You’d have to stick with that, bolster yourself where you can. So my next question is about looking after your mental wellness, when you’re starting a new role. It sounds as though the new role is looking off your mental wellness and in a way, because you’re getting that opportunity to mix with people and socialise and chat with people, which you know, does use lots of good. And we know, actually, from research we’ve done and so many people we speak to the social connectivity aspect is just everything. I mean, that is just so important for mental wellness. Is there anything else that you’re doing to look after your mental wellness when you’re starting a new job? And do you think that your tactics for starting a new role change as you progress up the career ladder? You’re quite high up now? Is it a different thing for you, as opposed to 20 years ago? Or do you think there are some fundamentals in there that we should stick to?


James Appleby 10:48

Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean, I’ll get the bit out of the way that’s probably of no interest to the younger, younger people, which it does, I would say it gets doesn’t necessarily get harder, I think it does get a bit more intense, and you just have to be a bit more, I found I need to be a bit more focused about it, not just because maybe you’ve got more responsibility in the job. Maybe not.


But also, I found I’ve got more responsibility in the job now than I had 20 years ago, or 10 years ago. So obviously, I kind of think, well, that requires my attention and focus, which I think sort of a fair, a fair trade, but also, I have my wife and I have two children now, and my wife also has a very, very busy job. And you know, we don’t have any kind of, you know, any real magic other than really good. – it’s really, really boring to say, but like lots of logistics and planning, right? And all the life admin that anyone who’s who is a parent, or know or a carer.


So it just becomes a bit like, this is the same plan, but you need to be much kind of tighter in execution, I think. Because there’s just a lot more going on. So I think, you know, again, prioritisation, I’ve had a lot of people talking about prioritisation this week, just because, you know, we’re, we’re very busy at work and doing lots of lots of great stuff. People say, oh, yeah, no, you got lots of priorities. And I had to correct someone to say no, you can’t have lots of priorities, otherwise, they’re not really priorities. So for me, pedantic as I am, so for me, the priority is, you know, family at work and sleep, you know, that’s really I mean, that really is it, like, I know that if I’m starting to erode into good quality family time doing my job well, or sleeping, well, then I’m doing something badly, and it will start some kind of vicious cycle that I don’t want to be in.


So you know, it does, does mean working out what you deprioritize. So, you know, TV, sadly, seeing friends has to has to be one of them. And hobbies, kissing goodbye to them when I had children about 13 years ago. So my children are my hobby, exactly what well put. So I think, you know, I think it in terms of, you know, trying to be a bit more useful to, to everyone for that, I don’t know.


But I certainly think you probably naturally get a boost of energy, going into a new role, I think anyone does has a bit of a new lease of life, it’s a bit of a fresh start. There’s new people, there’s new faces. But equally, it can be very, very easy to say yes to everything at the beginning of a new job, and desperately want to impress everyone. And that can lead to a kind of a bit of exhaustion.


There’s a book, which it seems that most people I know have read called the first 90 days, I couldn’t, I can’t even remember his bio, but with the title like that everyone kind of just buys it. And I’ve got a dog-eared copy with some pencil marks in and it’s you know, it’s a perfectly decent book, but it kind of tells you what you probably would have worked out on your own I think, which is, you know, have a plan tried to add value by the time you get to the end of 90 days, rather than just sitting there and passively learning, which I think we would hopefully most of us consider fairly kind of common sense.


But I think as long as you know, I feel like I’m giving it giving it the energy that I was missing and that I felt like I really wanted to really wanted to be involved in when I didn’t have a job I think I’m coming home at the end of the day feeling pretty good about it. But caveat, um, two and a half weeks in saying you know what, let’s see in a while.


Louise Scodie – NABS 14:21

I’m enjoying the upbeat nature with which you’re delivering your message. I you know, it’s interesting about the 90 days thing because I think you also have to know about yourself, how long do you generally take to feel comfortable in a role and once you know that you then don’t add any undue pressure on yourself because it takes a while to figure out what’s what in a new organisation. And for me, personally, I think six months I feel bedded in before that I’m still like what on earth and it’s not to say I don’t get things done. It’s not say I don’t identify quick wins. But that level of comfort where your job is like a sofa, you know, you know where your bum grooves are, you know where to sit. I don’t get that until at least six months.


James Appleby 15:00

Yeah, it’s a great, it’s a really interesting thought, actually, because this first 90 days book, so puts a lot of pressure because you go, well, there must be 90 days, then I mean, as you say, it depends on you. It depends on the role depends on the company depends on the job you’ve been asked to do. I have found in previous roles that I know they should we remain nameless to protect the innocent, but I have, you know, kind of gone in thinking, right, I want to, they’ve said six months, before you really understand our business. I’ve thought, well, that’s too long. I’m sure I’m sure I can add value before then and I’ve kind of ended up chasing my tail a bit is actually to an extent they were right. But then, of course, you want to be useful. So it’s a it’s a really good one. I mean, it’s interesting how, of course, we have probation periods. And that sort of does tend to be 90 days, most people are on a three-month probation, aren’t they? I think in my experience anyway, so you’d, you’d sort of thing the idea is your you’d know how well you’re doing after, after that three-month period.


But it’s interesting, starting a new business and hearing people just who a few people have started at the same time as me saying things like, oh, yeah, I mean, because obviously, you know, the first three months, the first six months, the first nine months, people are kind of throwing out in conversation, as if to kind of get some sort of approbation, is that is that right? Does that seem fair? Yeah, there’s not a formally contracted thing. It’s just, when am I meant to know what’s going on? And, you know, without wishing to sound really really twitchy. But like, I think, I’ve always stayed in businesses, as long as I, as long as I learned something, and as long as I, I, it’s still interesting, and I’m still finding something out. And I think, you know, you’ll never fully 100% I mean, I think the day you walk in and go, no, I think I noticed that the back of my hand is probably the day you’re bored. And certainly my case, the day I’m bored it’s time to time to look at something else.


But yeah, it’s a very, it’s a very good point about putting pressure on yourself as well, I think, which is that, in my experience, I can only really talk about me, because that’s all I’ve got. But pressure comes, you know, I am my own worst enemy. When it comes to pressure. I think with maybe one or two exceptions, I put more pressure on me than anyone else around me does. And that’s just something to watch out for. Because it also means you have the power to give yourself a break.


Sometimes say, you know what, I think maybe you have done pretty well or you’ve done your best or you’ve done everything that could conceivably done and you’ve spoken to other people, and they seem to agree with that. So maybe give yourself the evening to actually unwind for 90 minutes before you before you go to bed again and do all again.


So I think that’s I think that map mental pressure, we talked about it being a pressured industry, it tends to attract people I think, who are who will who are self-motivated and self-motivated people add pressure to themselves. So it’s one to watch out for because it can kind of come up and bite you, I think,


Louise Scodie – NABS 18:01

So much about what you’ve said makes you a great choice to chair Fast Forward and Fast Forward is NABS’ training programme for rising stars in the industry, where we teach delegates how to pitch. So how did you get involved with Fast Forward and what’s bringing you back to it for a second year?


James Appleby 18:43

Well, if you’ll indulge me for about 60 seconds, I’ll tell you how I got involved. I had a sabbatical in 2016. And in my month off, I had a bit of reflection time. And I reflected – I like my life. I like my family. I like my job. Things pretty good. So that was a great reflection to start with. But then I thought well, actually would really like to give back a bit to industry because I’ve been in it for 15 years or so. And I’d sort of like to do some kind of mentoring or help or teaching or something. Because it’s something I enjoy as well.


I sent a couple of emails out, including one to an email address I found for NABS, I think on somewhere on the website, and I got a call back in about 35 seconds from somebody called Kylie who said hi, I run a course called Fast Forward, you will be a mentor, starts tomorrow and I was like yeah, sure.


And that was it. I was kind of chucked in the deep end because it was week two, of course and they were I think we were a bit shorter mentors back then and yeah, I absolutely loved it because it was an opportunity to meet a load of people kind of at my stage in my career as mentors, but also lots of people learning the ropes of the business.


So people in different kinds of agencies, media agencies, ad agencies, and spending a bit of time in a room with them in the days when it was all, all face to face over a kind of 10 week period was, was just really uplifting actually, because it was a chance to help people learn, learn a bit of the craft and learn how to pitch and then how to put a deck together. And all the stuff that I’d sort of not realised I knew how to do and had the ability to pass some of that past some of that stuff on, if you’ll forgive me for sounding grand for just a second, but it was just kind of gave me a real buzz.


Louise Scodie – NABS 20:54

What do you think, in terms of the challenges in the industry do you think Fast Forward helps to address?


James Appleby 21:04

Well, it’s interesting because it was conceived as a course, by Jeremy Bullmore, 25 years ago, I think, to bring together media agencies and advertising agencies. And his observation of the time because media agencies were still relative to now they were relatively new things that they were separately appointed by clients, and they would go off in different directions. So you’d have the advertising agency going off and doing great ads and media agencies going off and doing great media plans. But they didn’t really get each other. They weren’t there for very joined up, and they weren’t delivering the best for clients. So it was conceived in that regard. And it’s still largely does that really, really well.


Obviously, the world has moved on quite a lot in 25 years, we didn’t have social media, we barely had digital media then. And actually, I think one of the things we’ve become more aware of as an industry but also a global, I think, as a western population as a as a social science become more aware of stress and what it is, and mental health and the fact that it’s you know, hopefully that stigma of mental health is starting to kind of become eroded. And so I think, actually, the pressure around our industry, which is a very real thing, and is probably always going to be a part of it is something that NABS Fast Forward, as a part of NABS, is able to really help people with so I think there’s that because it’s, as I say, you give people a kind of pressure cooker experience. But it has to be to a degree because that’s what we do as a business.


You know, if you get put on a page, you don’t, you don’t get to do at your own pace. There are very real time pressures, you don’t get to do it with all the resources in the world, because it’s a pitch. And that’s that’s just how these things work. But also teaching people how to work together how to learn different skills from around the industry. Now, ultimately, there is a big thing about learning to listen to other people, which sounds really patronising. But it’s still every single conversation I have I tell myself often not listening slightly more. And, of course, there’s, you know, there’s a lot in there about, about building a network.


And that’s another big mental health thing, which to bring it back to my earlier point, which is really, really helpful when the going gets tough. I’ve seen people build friendships in NABS, and that would include myself, you know. And it’s part of what makes it so fun for me, because I keep returning with a group of mentors who are brilliant, some new each year, but there’s some people who’ve been who’ve been doing it for a few years now. But those are also the people that I called upon when I needed a bit of help, and said, you know, have you got time for coffee? Would really good to get your advice. And that literally made my day, you know, when a 20-minute coffee that someone has got between two meetings for them was a 20-minute coffee with someone who’s a friend for me, it was the highlight of my week, you know, and it kept me kept me smiling till the end of the day. So I think there’s so much that goes on in fast forward. That may just seem like another evening course. But actually, it’s about preparing you and your mental health for the for the future.


Louise Scodie – NABS 24:28

It’s a really good point about the mental health as NABS is delivering it. It’s something that’s really core to us. And I think what you were saying about, you know, you meet someone and maybe 10 years down the road, they give you a 20-minute coffee and you feel absolutely brilliant as a result that it’s about setting those foundations for relationships that are really going to, I don’t want to use the word pay dividends on the stock again, it’s about setting yourself up with relationships that are really going to be enriching and rewarding and mutually helpful as the years roll.


It’s this notion of you lifting other people are people lifting you up that’s so great about community. So, with that in mind, how does the adland community lift you up?


James Appleby 25:48

Well, I’ve already talked a bit about, I guess, my kind of experience over the last six months of just needing support from people and, and largely getting out, I would expand on that a little bit by saying, it really, really gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling that it’s a great industry to be in.


So, you know, it can, you know, it feels like hard work sometimes and physical hard work a lot of the time and maybe like hard work. But when I spoke to people, I knew they, they would say to me, why don’t you talk to this person, because they might have some advice for you. And I found myself having coffee, in some cases, actual coffee actually face-to-face with people, people who were quite senior in this industry, who I’d never met before, who had never met me who didn’t know who I was saying, oh, great to meet you at eight o’clock in the morning or over their lunch hour. And that really, really gave me a buzz and a lift.


It made me think you know what, there’s something really wonderful here that I don’t think we really talk about a lot. You know, we talk a lot about the fact that we’re not saving lives, or that we’re not brain surgeons, or, you know, rocket scientists. And I think maybe we give ourselves a bit of a hard time, particularly those of us of a certain age who grew up when advertising sort of had a bit of a bad reputation as being kind of full of flashy people making loads of money. I don’t really think it’s like that anymore. And I think we’ve kind of evolved.


I think people really, really support each other in this industry. It’s not, you know, not all the time, and it’s not perfect. That’s why we have to raise awareness of these things. But that’s, that’s the thing that kind of made me feel reassured because I hadn’t gone out to deliberately build a network. You know, and I, I’m, I always think, oh, I don’t see people enough. And I don’t go to enough drinks. And I’m never at events. And I’m never ever on roundtables and can’t remember the last time I was at an award ceremony. But actually, over time, you do make friends and you do, build, you know, maybe even build your reputations together.


That sort of stuff, which I definitely found while looking for a job was, was a helpful thing. But I think there’s just this. Yeah, I just think I just think the support that actually is out there is really, really helpful. I’m trying not to use the word networking. Because it’s such an icky concept to me, I really hate the idea. I remember going to something once and they said, and now I think they the keynote speakers stopped and they said, and now some networking. Oh, horrible. They just wanted us to talk to each other and just great. I’ve got a name badge on. So that means I can talk to this person, a complete stranger next to me.


But actually, as a concept is a kind of lovely one, which is that we’re there helping each other out talking to people. It’s what happens whether it’s at drinks, or there’s no drink involved. And as I said, I haven’t drunk this year. And I’d quite happily go to, to some drinks because actually, what I want to do is chat to people and get to know people and maybe you can help them out, maybe they can help you out. So I think that’s, that’s a that’s a really, really big thing.


There’s a lot of passion as well like for the actual work we do. That’s the other thing about Fast Forward, is that it was not just conceived in the idea that we’re going off in different directions. But if we bring that together and really, really focus on doing great work that adds value to our clients’ business, ultimately, that is what we’re trying to do. We can lose sight of that even you know, we get lost in the process of the job and the politics of whatever business we work inside. But sometimes just getting together with people and you and seeing how much effort goes into a pitch process where not only are you not getting paid to deliver that pitch someone is paying for you to be on that course. That’s kind of really refreshing and makes me feel pretty good about going in the next day.


Louise Scodie – NABS 30:00

Last question. I’m feeling so positive with this chat. By the way, it’s just so good. Thank you so much for picking up my afternoon. What’s the lesson that you’ve learned about how to support yourself?


James Appleby 30:16

I may have mentioned earlier, but I think the biggest thing I’ve learned recently is to try not to judge myself. So there’s plenty of external stresses and strains. But it’s actually the voice that I think we all maybe sometimes hear in our head saying, that’s, you know, that’s too slow, that’s weak, that’s lazy, that’s not good enough. Whilst that can be a positive thing to drive you to do better. Everyone needs to, you know, have a break, otherwise, you just become your own worst slave master.


I would say that’s the, that’s the big thing I’ve learned, which is that, whether it’s, you know, of recent times when it was about not having not having work and, and blaming myself for that, which definitely I did. Which may sound mad, because it was completely out of my control. But I then think of, I think of I try, I’ve translated that into my new job, where I’m working on something, and I think, well, obviously, I’m giving this, everything I can give it, you know, kind of rationally and emotionally, and then these people are giving everything they can give it, you know, I’m giving those people the benefit of the doubt too.


That really just kind of makes it all a bit lighter for me, which is that, you know, I’d rather start a day, do some do the best work I can possibly do. And then and then I feel like I’m, you know, ready for bed and ready to do all again the next day rather than thinking, this is never good enough. So I think it’s just getting that balance, because we’re probably getting a bit deep now where these voices come from. I’m aware this is not the psychiatrist couch. But yeah, I think that’s the that’s the big thing I’ve learned for me personally, which is to remember to occasionally give myself a bit of a break.


Louise Scodie – NABS 32:17

Not only do you deserve a break, but I’d like you to take one right now after focusing so intently on our conversation and giving us so many insights into managing your wellbeing during your career and starting a new job.


It’s been such an enriching and positive conversation. Thank you so much, James, thanks for joining us. I’m going to put a link to Fast Forward in the show notes if you want to find out more about the course. And then either sign up your people if you’re a team leader or get yourself signed up. If you are a team member, then you can find all of that information there. And you can find James Appleby on LinkedIn as well. James once again, thank you so much. And thank you for listening. See you next time.


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